Are some people just “evil”? If not, how do they learn to be so awful?


By: Dr. Clayton E. Tucker-Ladd

Occasionally you hear of a horrendous crime—an 80-year-old woman is brutally assaulted, being raped, stabbed many times, and perhaps the head or body parts cut off and buried. No one can understand why a total stranger would do this. In one’s mind one paints a picture of intense, uncontrolled rage. The act is so extremely abhorrent that one can’t imagine oneself doing such a violent, revolting and senseless thing. Most people might say “the person who did that is an evil person.”  That is about as far as one’s explanation can go. For most people that may be all the explanation of behavior they need. In some peculiar way “evil” explains what has happened. But the term isn’t an adequate explanation. “Evil” says the acts are bad but it doesn’t clarify the reasons or the means by which “evil” forces caused this atrocity.
“Evil” is one of the oldest explanations of terribly bad behavior. It is a religious concept, coming from the ancient notion of opposing good and evil forces—God and the Devil–fighting for control over people’s lives and worldly events. At other times in less serious and bizarre circumstances it is said almost as a joke, “The Devil made me do it.” That may be a subtle request that the listener not undertake a deeper analysis of the speaker’s motives. “The Devil did it” may also be said more seriously to help explain some shamefully inconsiderate, immoral, or selfish behavior or to escape some responsibility for what one has done. It is like saying “it was not entirely my fault” or “I don’t know why I did it.”
There are many abominable acts committed for unfathomable reasons. I don’t refer just to mass murder of unknown people (the World Trade Center Towers, the Washington, D.C snipers) but also to leaders who plan genocide (Hitler, Malosovich, and Sudan or Uganda leaders) or start or prolong unnecessary wars, businesses that deceive or cheat lots of people, and so on, as well as spouse and child abusers, rapists, sexual abusers, petty criminals or ordinary cons, and people who are cruel to animals. One can see why the most horrible and least understood acts of these people might be called “evil” because the term reflects our fear of and disdain for immoral acts. But when “evil” replaces explanatory scientific terms and methods, it blocks our getting knowledge about the true causes of terrible violent and weird behaviors. Let’s think about that a little bit.
There certainly are uncaring, self-centered people in the world; they are in powerful political and economic positions, in prisons, in business, in families and virtually everywhere. In our society, we don’t approve of greed but we certainly understand the payoffs involved in taking advantage of others. Even when greed is extreme (like a corporation executive absconding with all the retirement funds of the employees) we are likely to see that kind of act as selfish, cruel, or psychopathic, rather than “evil.” The idea of “evil” is more likely to be used when the crime is brutal, senseless, and heinous but has no obvious pay off (like huge profits, amassing power or status, or getting revenge). Using “evil” as an explanation is an attempt to understand unusually bad behavior without having knowledge about how such behavior actually develops. The use of “evil” is something like 1000 years ago when people attributed a severe drought to the Gods being angry. But “evil” provides no valid explanation of an atrocious act, thus, “evil” can’t accurately explain the forces or conditions that lead to these behaviors (similarly, science-based weather forecasting today is more accurate than understanding and predictions were 1000 years ago). The idea that an atrocity was just “God’s will” doesn’t really explain anything because we are left with the problem of explaining why God willed such behavior (that would be even more difficult than predicting behavior). And we are left without any understanding of the mechanisms of how “evil” exerts its influence on behavior; it is just magic. The effects of “evil” influences are not predictable because those forces are not based on any documented cause-and-effect relationships. In contrast we know the causes of droughts and floods. “Evil” seems to merely proclaim that behaviors might be caused by spiritual/mystical forces (like the Devil). When we know more about violence and greed, our explanations will be more specific.
The concept of “evil” only partly satisfies the powerful human needs to understand why things happen. There are many circumstances where “evil” is used or could easily be used to explain the intense driving force behind inexplicable violence. If you have any doubts about the degree of hatred and rage in some people, then read some of the histories of famous criminals (Fox, J. & Levin, J., 2005) or Hickey, (2001). You might also read the actual law enforcement profiles of offenders who have tortured, raped, maimed and killed totally innocent victims (Campbell & DeNevi, 2004). Warning: these books describe very gory events. Not recommended to the young or the squeamish. However, these authors discuss the cultural, historical, and religious factors that influence our myths, including “evil,” and stereotypes of violent individuals. They then also describe the biological, psychological, and sociological reasons, based on current science, for serial or mass murders. In general, these experts deplore the lack of research about such awful offenses. In general, they claim that serial killers are “losers,” who feel they have never distinguished themselves, but are obsessed with power and dominance.  Abusers turn to violence to achieve power; they use brutality to look like powerful men. Often as a child, they were themselves abused and rejected. Like all behavior, “evil” acts have a history.
 Personally, I think “evil” is a vague but quite descriptive literary term which implies that mysterious, supernatural forces are responsible for abominable thoughts, intentions, and overt acts. But the concept of “evil” keeps us in the dark ages. Such thinking obstructs historical investigations for causes, objective measurements, and scientific study. There is little agreement from person to person what “evil” influences are, where they come from, how they work, and whether evil forces can be changed. Since evil can’t be observed (the resulting horrible acts are observed but the nature of the “evil” influences triggering bad acts can’t be directly observed), how could we gain knowledge about “evil”? The “evil” concept alone detracts us from objectively and scientifically studying many topics and acts of great importance, such as war.  In my estimation, when we come to understand (through hard scientific studies) the complex factors that underlie violence, such as the factors mentioned above and discussed later in this chapter, we will no longer need the concept of “evil.” Many decades from now, when lawful cause and effect connections are known between genes, childhood experiences, brain disorders, psychological or mental disorders, attitudes and thoughts, hormonal influences, specific psychological/social environments and mean, cruel, or destructive behaviors, we will no longer need to believe in supernatural forces to understand anger, violence, and meanness. Even now, most people no longer need to believe in Satan or demons but the notion of “evil” is still with us in subtle forms. We do need to learn a lot more about the complex conditions and laws of behavior that produce violence, resentful attitudes, prejudice, intolerance, greed, delusions, poor impulse control, and psychopathic behavior.
 I want to give you another example of how science can understand awful (“evil”) acts and thereby avoid the mystical anti-scientific notions embedded in explanations that use “evil.” Military leaders, as well as psychologists and psychiatrists, observed during the Vietnam War that some soldiers who had been in combat—sometimes captured and tortured—and had seen the brutality involved in war were more likely to become brutal and violent themselves. Some US soldiers killed old men, women and children without good cause. It may amaze you—it did me—that an estimated 20% of American officers who died in Vietnam were killed by their own men. A psychiatrist, Jonathan Shay (1995), studied such acts and wrote a book, “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat trauma and the undoing of character.” His title states his thesis, namely, going through the horrors of war, results in the soldier’s own conscience and morals (or impulse control) deteriorating and becoming radically changed. This is especially likely if the soldier has personally been grossly mistreated or if the soldier has been misinformed or mislead about “what is right” by his own officers or government, and if the soldier has brutalized others. For some soldiers it becomes much easier to inflict pain, disregard suffering, and to kill—the kinds of things that we might call “evil.” Another consequence to the soldier fighting a war may be long- term suffering of Traumatic Stress Disorder (discussed in chapter 5). We will also see in this chapter that many “evil” people have grown up without experiencing dependable love, care, and empathy. Many violent people, grossly mistreated when young, have learned early to enjoy hurting others, e.g. bullying others and hurting animals.
 A fascinating study by Alette Smeulers, a professor at Maastricht University in Netherlands (presented at EPCR in Torino, March, 2002), is about the training used to convince a person to torture, torment, or maim for a government. A few people have life experiences that make them sadistic and cruel but there have been many schools, mostly government run, that make ordinary people into torturers. How do the trainers change people? Smeulers says these training programs usually select people with a militaristic background, i.e. accustomed to taking orders and having unquestioning loyalty to authority. There are then three long stages in the training of torture perpetrators: (1) routine exposure to being in situations where torture occurs, e.g. first just guarding prisoners who are tortured. More and more they are permitted to see the torture. Then gradually the trainee is asked to actually help the torturers. (2) At first, hurting someone is hard, but the trainee learns to rationalize and justify his actions. In the trainee’s mind the enemy is dehumanized; they are seen as evil or inferior. Feelings of shame and guilt are blocked or overcome– desensitized. (3) Being brutal and cruel becomes routine and habitual. “I just did my job. I had no choice” The torturer rationalizes his actions…and his government’s actions. You get used to stressing the prisoners and inflicting pain. So, these schools clearly show that cruelty can be taught. Not every one will willingly torture people; it is way too disturbing for some. But some will convince themselves that the cruelty is necessary. After becoming a torturer or abusive—naturally or by special training— can they become kind? Some stop when they are confronted with their actions. Some continue to take pride in what they do.
Shay’s book about the effects of combat is very powerful. It should be read before anyone votes for war. It will open your eyes to the soldier’s view of war, especially what the author calls “the betrayal of what’s right.” The soldier comes to war believing that killing civilians is wrong, that the entire nation approves the killing he is sent to do, that company commanders know what is happening in the war, where the friendly artillery shells will land, and what dangers lie 100 yards ahead, that we are winning the war if the enemy has more dead than we have, etc. However, the events and conditions the soldier experiences in combat may convince him/her that what he is told is not the truth…that even his own leaders have betrayed him. Those confusing situations contribute to combat fatigue or Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Finally, there are many probably false beliefs about the forces of “evil” that should be investigated. Examples: (1) That “evil” develops very early in childhood and becomes an unstoppable part of a person’s basic primitive personality. (2) That “evil” urges can’t be psychologically explained and “evil” can’t be blamed on life events, like child abuse, emotional trauma, ethnic or religious hatred, psychological disorders, TV, friends, etc. (3) “Evil” is an addiction, like in a serial killer, and is an insatiable thirst for a special “high” that comes with over-powering, injuring, and killing people or animals. (4) That “evil” people experience no regrets or guilt about what they have done and have no wish to change. These assumed characteristics of “evil” can be can be studied and confirmed or refuted. If the notion of evil is not researched, it may, like other social taboos, interfere with our psychological thinking about anger and violence for 100s of years. My belief is that “evil” is a left-over idea from centuries old religion and mysticism that needs to be replaced with research based concepts…
…Mental illness may be a much more powerful factor in these behaviors than we believe at this time, consider, e.g. Andrea Yates, the post-partum depressed mother who killed all 5 of her children, and Susan Smith, who drowned her children by sinking her car in a lake. The “evil” notion may still play a role in our thinking about these kinds of behavior too, even in our courts.

Photo credit: “good vs evil” by saibel (2009)

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